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It wasn't a stretch for Sylvia Youngson, a retired dancer, to figure out the best way to whip herself and other women in shape: Belly up to the barre.
"I was losing tone and needed to condition my body," said Youngson, 50. "I had the time because my son was grown and driving. But mention "ballet" to women and they run for the hills. It scares the hell out of people who think they're too short, too tall, too fat or too uncoordinated."
Youngson took a chance anyway, offering a niche for adults only, especially those intimidated by gyms or ballet schools that are dedicated to turning out professional dancers. A year ago she started teaching classes in ballet fitness and barre technique, a trend popularized during the past few years by Cardio Barre studios in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Ballet conditioning for tone, posture, balance and flexibility has gotten a leg up at health clubs.
"It's like nothing else," said Kelley Gallegos, co-manager of Canyon Crest Athletic Club in Riverside.
A month ago the gym installed ballet barres for a popular workout taught by Sheree Skiles, a former professional ballerina who then owned a dance studio in Moreno Valley.
Except for a recession-driven dip in 2009, dance studios have stayed on their toes since 2008, according to IBIS World. The research firm reported that the $2 billion annual industry is expected to grow 1.2 percent through 2018 because initial startup costs are minimal. Dance studios can often convert a space with little expense or pay an hourly rate for a room.
Youngson followed the second model, renting a studio at the Academy of Ballet Arts in Murrieta and the community room at Harveston Lakehouse in Temecula. She teaches six classes a week, Tuesday through Friday from one to four hours a day. The cost is $8 an hour, but Youngson offers package deals at reduced rates.
Youngson doesn't see herself as a rival to the Academy or studios that groom serious dancers to perform in ballet companies.
"I'm offering the same training, the same exercise, but there's no fame in it," Youngson said. "Ballet is fitness. I'm passionate about teaching it to adults."
Through social networking, flyers and word-of-mouth, she has attracted a small following of devotees, 20 women, ages 40 and up. Youngson hopes to nearly double enrollment.
During a recent 90-minute ballet-fitness class, seven women, some wearing leotards and ballet skirts work up a sweat at the barre, leap and glide across the floor. Judy Updegraff, 67, is part of a tap group called The Rockerettes at The Colony, a 55-and-up community in Murrieta.
"This class helps me stand up straight, learn how to move my arms and work parts of my body other than my feet," she said. "The whole time I'm here I feel graceful."
Rita Nastri always wanted to take ballet as a little girl. Now at 72, she got her chance.
"I do aerobics and take tap, but this class improves my flexibility," she said.
A late blooming ballet student at 45, Susie Yurich, 55, is addicted, taking seven of Youngson's classes a week.
Holly Spencer, 48, who has danced all her life, said Youngson's class "made me realize how out of shape I was."
Youngson started the program to get back her lithe figure after bowing out of the dance world at 35 to raise her family. The classically trained San Diego native started performing at age 8. Three years later she apprenticed with the San Diego Ballet Company. After receiving her BA in theater arts/dance from UC San Diego, Youngson continued to dance in several companies on the West Coast.
After her last stage performance, she taught, directed and choreographed several community after-school programs in the Temecula. Her husband Mark works in real estate and their son Bryce, 17, has his own car.
With more time on her hands, Youngson walked and tried yoga.
"I missed ballet," she said. "I wanted to offer it to people who wouldn't normally know how to do it."
Judy Updegraff said the technical challenges motivate her to work harder.
"I love watching Sylvia," she said. "She's my inspiration."
Contact Laurie Lucas at 951-368-9559 or firstname.lastname@example.org